[Note: For those old enough to remember, the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., the Chaplain of a colorum (his word) parish at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), would always have a special homily on Valentine’s Day during his 12:15 noontime mass. When I was still working in Makati, I would walk from Salcedo Village to Legaspi Village to make it in time for his 12:15 mass at AIM. Each year, his Valentine’s Day mass would be packed to the rafters and each year, those who went would not be disappointed. In 1998, the year he passed on to the Father, a collection of Fr. Jim’s homilies was published; it is entitled “God’s Crooked Lines: The Search for Truth.” I was delighted to see that it contains one of my all-time favorites ever from Fr. Jim’s vast collection. It is a homily he gave one pre-Valentine’s Day mass. I take the liberty of setting it out in full here.
It is a homily to be read quietly in quiet reflection but later to be read aloud in loving company; but it is, most of all, a homily to be read with loved ones and those whom we love in the company of He who loved us first, loves us most and loves us for all eternity.]
“A Love Story”
Fr. James F. Donelan, S.J.
If by some happy chance you should ever find yourself in the Italian city of Florence, take a little time out for a sentimental pilgrimage. Leave the Piazza Vecchio, cross over the Ponte Vecchio, where the goldsmith shops are. Go up the Via Maggiore towards the Pitti Palazzo where, just opposite the Palazzo and the Church of San Felice, stands the Casa Guidi. This is the shrine of our pilgrimage.
It is a proper pilgrimage to make as Valentine’s Day approaches. For here in this old ancestral house of the Guidi family was enacted one of the great love stories of all times.
I would like you to relive with me two touching scenes from that love story.
The first scene takes place on an early spring morning in the year 1849. Standing on the street below, we can see the large windows of the Casa Guidi open up, and a man, an Englishman, stands there looking across towards San Felice, but actually lost in thought. He is a writer, a poet, and he is thinking about what he will write that day. He doesn’t hear his wife come up behind him until he feels her hand push some papers into his pocket, and turning, he sees her fleeing from the room.
An hour later, he is still standing there by the window, his cheeks wet with tears. For what he read in his wife’s neat handwriting on the crumpled sheets of paper was the answer to a question, an answer which he kept to himself for twelve years. Until his wife died. Then he gave it to the world. We all know now both the question and the answer:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach . . .
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs. . .
. . . with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! –and if God choose,
I shall love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett, the Englishman’s wife who wrote those lines, never dreamt she would ever say such things, feel such things. At 16, she had fallen from a horse. The injury developed into tuberculosis. It also gave a tyrannically possessive father the weapon with which to imprison her for 15 years in a room where no brightness, neither of smile nor of sunshine, ever came. To pass the time, she wrote poems. A kindly uncle published some of them.
One day she received a note which read, “I love your poetry with all my heart, and I love you too.” Signed, Robert Browning.
What followed is an astonishing example of the power of love. Elizabeth escaped from her father’s house, married Robert Browning and sailed to Italy, to Florence, to the Casa Guidi on Via Maggiore, which was to be her home until she died. That “incurable” invalid bore her husband a son, and so filled his heart with song that Robert Browning became one of England’s great poets. While she, transformed by his love, wrote a collection of sonnets which earned for her an immortal place among the world’s great poets of love. My young friends, what advice do you think Elizabeth Browning would have for you today?
I choose to ask Elizabeth rather than her husband because I have found, at least in my reading of literature, that while male poets like Sydney, Wyatt, Shakespeare, John Donne excel in expressing their love, it is the women who get to the heart of the matter. Perhaps because, as Jane Austen, an English novelist, wrote: Love is only a part of a man’s life. It is a woman’s whole life. And she went on to say that while men may love as long as there is hope, women love long after there is none. When Jeremy Irons, playing the English gentleman, asked the French lieutenant’s woman if she walked those bleak shores waiting for her lieutenant, she proved Jane Austen’s point. She had learned, she said, that the very brave can be very false. She knew he wouldn’t return, and yet she waited.
Elizabeth’s advice to all young lovers is contained in a sonnet in which, having already told her husband how she loved him, she now tells him how she wants to be loved. She asks him not to build his love on the shifting sands of change, not on looks or mind or personality or shared interest or on pity, for “love so wrought can be unwrought so.” She writes:
If thou must love me, let it be for naught
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile—her looks—her way
of speaking gently—for a trick of thought
that falls in well with mine, and brought
a sense of pleasant ease on such a day.”—
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or, change for thee—and love so wrought
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wipingmy tears dry—
A creature might forget to weep who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake that evermore
Thou mayest love on through love’s eternity.
For Elizabeth Browning, love was not an exchange. A deal. A barter. You give to me. I give to you. For her, true love was an outright, unconditional gift. It gives all and asks nothing.
The second and last scene in our love story takes place 12 years later in the same Casa Guidi. Again, it is early morning. Robert Browning is sitting fully dressed at Elizabeth’s bedside. They are alone. Elizabeth is sleeping, resting against his cheek. He has been there all night. She wakens and he asks how she feels. Later he wrote: Then came what my heart will keep until I see her again, the most perfect expression of her love for me within my whole knowledge of her. She answered his question with one word: “Beautiful.” And died.
Today, the Casa Guidi still stands there along the Via Maggiore, opposite the Pitti Palazzo. A small plaque near the door tells us that this is where Elizabeth and Robert Browning lived. But the anthologies and histories of English literature tell us more. In these pages, along with William Shakespeare and John Donne and John Keats, along with Byron and Shelley, we read the names of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, who loved each other with the breadth, smiles, and tears of all their life, and who now live on in love’s eternity.